Russian fighters under the private military organization Wagner PMC have surged towards the city of Moscow over the weekend following their seizure of the southern city of Rostov-on-Don overnight. Despite Russia's military launching aerial attacks, their efforts seemed insufficient to impede the lightning-fast progression of the rebellious fighters led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who exact location has only been confirmed during a meeting with a Russian army officer in Rostov.
In what seems to be the initial significant challenge to President Vladimir Putin's ironclad control during his 23-year reign, he vowed to swiftly quell this armed mutiny, likening it to the Civil War that ravaged Russia a century ago.
Wagner troops set up positions during the 'capture' of Rostov. (Photo via Telegram. Photographer unknown)
“I appeal to the citizens of Russia, to the personnel of the armed forces, law enforcement agencies and special services, to the fighters and commanders who are now fighting in their combat positions, repulsing enemy attacks, doing it heroically - I know, I spoke to the commanders of all directions again last night I also appeal to those who were drawn into a criminal adventure by deceit or threats, who were pushed onto the path of a serious crime - an armed rebellion," Putin said in a pre-recorded statement that aired Saturday around midday.
Putin, visibly angered, states that "this is a stab in the back of our country and our people."
Russian President Vladimir Putin's full statement with translation.
"It was such a blow that was dealt to Russia in 1917, when the country was waging the First World War. But the victory was stolen from her. Intrigues, squabbles, politicking behind the backs of the army and the people turned into the greatest shock, the destruction of the army and the collapse of the state, the loss of vast territories. As a result, the tragedy of the civil war," he added.
"Russians killed Russians, brothers - brothers, and all sorts of political adventurers and foreign forces, who divided the country, tore it into pieces, gained selfish profit.
We won't let this happen again. We will protect both our people and our statehood from any threats. Including from internal betrayal."
Prigozhin responded to this characterization saying that Having already captured the city of Rostov, they have embarked on a race spanning 1,100 km (680 miles), with Moscow as their ultimate objective.
Videos online and throughout social media show convoys of troop carriers, flatbed trucks, and armored vehicles including tanks in Rostov and further north in Voronezh, located more than halfway to Moscow.
Russian police and national guardsmen construct defensive positions southwest of Moscow.
Russian media outlets showcased images of small clusters of police personnel manning machine gun emplacements on the southern fringes of Moscow. Authorities in the Lipetsk region, situated south of the capital, issued advisories urging residents to remain indoors.
Responding to the unrest, over 100 firefighters battled a conflagration at a fuel depot in Voronezh. Video footage depicted a massive explosion, following the passage of a helicopter, reportedly a Ka-52 attack helicopter from the Russian aerospace forces. Prigozhin accused the Russian military of targeting civilian sites from the air in an attempt to impede the rebel forces' advancement.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has pledged his troops in the fight to prevent the Wagner troops from entering Moscow, with Kadyrov himself posting online;
"What is happening is not an ultimatum to the Ministry of Defense. This is a challenge to the state, and against this challenge it is necessary to rally around the national leader: the military, security forces, governors, and the civilian population. The fighters of the Ministry of Defense and the Russian Guard in the Chechen Republic have already left for the zones of tension. We will do everything to preserve the unity of Russia and protect its statehood! The rebellion must be crushed, and if this requires harsh measures, then we are ready!"
Video showing Chechen units with BTR-82A armored vehicles on the road to Rostov.
The next 48-72 hours are likely to be a Red Letter moment for the Russian Federation. Wagner PMCs operation will probably depend on their ability to supply their units moving toward Moscow, the level of public support, and how willing the Kremlin is to have a outright street fight in its own cities.
Wagner likely has enough for 3-4 days of operations, but things like food, shelter, and fuel for their vehicles are going to run out faster than anything else. As a result, assuming they don't find standard sources of supply, they may have to turn to looting local stores, which isn't going to win them the hearts and minds they need to actually overthrow any current government leadership.
A Wagner tank on the streets of Rostov with "Siberia" written in Russian and Z markings.
If firefights begin between Wagner and pro-Kremlin security forces, including the Chechen units, ammunition consumption will naturally be of immense concern. Wagner will either have to absorb captured resources or find them from local military posts which may already be reluctant to hand them over willingly.
Prigozhin has indeed thrown a proverbial 'Hail Mary' and its unclear to anyone how this will turn out in the end. Having said that, it has the potential to radically change both Russian politics as well as the war in Ukraine drastically, and not for the better. Even if Prigozhin was to take control of the government, it would not mean the end of hostilities, but likely a increase and restructuring of tactics against Ukraine.
However, Prigozhin's force comprises of some of the most battle-hardened men to have fought in Ukraine. His elite units have been responsible for the taking of Bakhmut, despite the loss of thousands of "lesser" quality fighters recruited from the Russian prison system. Russian military, national guard, and law enforcement units have little to no comparable experience but do have the air power afforded by Prigozhin's long time rival - the Ministry of Defense.
Cover Photo Credit: Handout / TELEGRAM/ @concordgroup_official / AFP